for as long as
your search for truth
your search for knowledge
as long as you keep coming back
to take with you
the little we have to offer
then you are reason enough
for making prison
worth its while
- from Searching
"Searching" and "Maybe" were both written in prison sometime in the mid '80s; and they probably are the only published work I wrote during that phase in my life. Not that I didn't try to put my feelings into print while in jail; but the loneliness was just so overwhelming during those days that even before starting to write, tears would blur my sight and the white paper stayed white or got smudged and found its way to a waste bin.
| His visits, as with all other visits by relatives or friends, were always the high point of our days because they broke the monotony of prison life and were the only times we were in touch with what was happening beyond the walls.
But I never allowed myself the luxury of crying during those years; knowing fully well that there was a world out there and people within the walls of my "home" who looked up to me for strength and inspiration; and inspire them I/we did.
Part of that world outside was Manoling Francisco to whom I dedicated "Searching". He was an Ateneo high school student who regularly visited political prisoners; initially as part of his Civics course requirement, and eventually as a friend. His visits, as with all other visits by relatives or friends, were always the high point of our days because they broke the monotony of prison life and were the only times we were in touch with what was happening beyond the walls. "Our dingy halls" was the Camp Crame stockade's visiting hall which was a filthy dark room where detainees were allowed to entertain their visitors; the two groups separated by three layers of dusty screens and rusted metal mesh with wooden ledges on each side to lean or sit on. This is where our encounters with Manoling and his "tribe" (classmates) took place; each one attempting to make out the face of the other and each one listening in earnest to the other—all within earshot of prison guards.
Many of the visits were emotionally-charged exchanges because Manoling wanted so badly to understand how anyone could intentionally anger the dictator; knowing fully well what the consequences would be: either prison or sure "salvaging" (summary execution) which was very common at the time. And so the high-schooler kept coming back to learn what he could not otherwise pick up from school until he thought he understood what it was our ilk stood for—nationalism which knew no bounds.
As far I as I was concerned, I knew the Camp Crame grounds would be "home" for a long time because I had done a "bad" thing.
I was jailed in November 1980 because I had pissed off the dictator and spoiled what would have been his international coming-out party at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) in Manila. A bomb had exploded while Ferdinand Marcos (then 15 years into his self-imposed Presidency) was delivering the opening address at the 50 th anniversary of the American Society of Travel Agents' annual convention; hastily sending some 6,000+ foreign travel agents, big-time tour operators and travel writers packing up and heading for home. They blamed the bombing on me.
| Within me, the embers of activism which were lit in my teen years were still burning; and I had maintained contact with the underground movement...
The intent was to disrupt the conference—one of a series of moves meant to destabilize Marcos' dictatorial government and bring it to its knees. Anti-Marcos activists singled out the convention as a potential headliner and propaganda gem in case anything untoward would happen while Marcos was inside the convention hall. By this time, the headcount of Marcos-instigated human rights violations against his detractors was over 72,000 and rising. These by-now infamous violations came in the form of summary executions, disappearances and torture. The dictator had amassed more than US$4 billion skillfully hidden in secret accounts abroad; and the conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand and his Imelda was growing stronger by the day with no signs of waning. Organizers of the travel convention were forewarned about the bombing, ignored the warnings, and got themselves into the world's headlines on the convention's opening day—but not for the reasons they had wanted the publicity for.
Nine days later, I was arrested for the deed and subjected to all forms of mental torture to weed out information about US-based Filipino patriots and their American sympathizers.
Branded an "international terrorist" way before George W. Bush popularized the term, I was then a 28-year old US resident, divorced mother to a toddler, a swinging Manhattan single and member of the Philippine diplomatic corps (Department of Tourism) when arrested. That was my public persona. Within me, the embers of activism which were lit in my teen years were still burning; and I had maintained contact with the underground movement; trying to help out every way I could while remaining a "straight-laced" and bourgeois professional and tourism promoter.
One of the most unique aspects of the interrogation period was the active involvement of a CIA/FBI composite team in trying to break me down. This included their threats to kidnap my son in the US and banning the exit of a sister who had traveled with me to the Philippines. During the first year, I was visited several times by the (US) FBI's international terrorism unit and two other Americans who I concluded were CIA agents from the way they tried to outwit each other with inanities only card-carrying agents could be capable of. Hitting a blank wall, they offered me a change in identity (no thank you, I said, I love my face AND my body), a choice of residence anywhere in the world; and finally, they asked me to "name my price" for any information leading to the capture of Filipino compatriots in the United States including Ninoy Aquino. To the last offer, I countered: so how much is the combined budget of the CIA and FBI?
| I was told by the military authorities to prepare for my release and so packed up...waited at the gates for an entire day for my father to pick me up; only for them to renege on their promise. That was the longest day in my life.
What they wanted was to turn me into a state witness to face a grand jury in the US that would indict and convict anti-Marcos activists residing in the States. What they didn't realize was that this New Yorker would not relent. Not even when threatened with rape.
And so prison became home to me for the next 4-1/2 years; sharing a compound within Camp Crame with military renegades and hardened criminals from Muntinlupa, the state penitentiary. The military authorities thought me too "radical"; and thus isolated me from political prisoners for long periods at a time. The company I kept and being the only female in military stockades occupied by males of the ultra-macho variety could be the subject of an entire novel. But that is not the subject of this article.
Throughout the next few years, I went through mock trials conducted by the military; and subsequently by civilian courts when martial law was "lifted". In between those years, there were "stints" at the Quezon City jail and solitary confinement for misbehavior. On my third year, I was told by the military authorities to prepare for my release and so packed up, went through the standard pre-release medical exams, waited at the gates for an entire day for my father to pick me up; only for them to renege on their promise. That was the longest day in my life.
Those years were the loneliest yet paradoxically the happiest years of my life. A certain peace within me prevailed; knowing I did what I did because it had to be done and thus had to take the consequences. And that was the time I wrote "Maybe"; prepared then for a lifetime in prison yet hopeful for some respite from the "species that refused to be human"—our wardens and jail officers who took the roles of petty tyrants to a professional level.
Incarceration, I think has made me a better person. Today, more than 20 years later, I am still active in the social movement; working from within the system to effect real change in the Philippine public educational system whose standards are pretty dismal and getting worse. Believing that quality education is a major factor in alleviating poverty, I have joined the Knowledge Channel Foundation which seeks out the neediest public schools in the most remote areas of the country to give educational television facilities (ETV) to. ETV is for sure a long-term intervention whose results I may not even see in my lifetime; but the patience and perseverance I developed since Crame days are being put to the test here. I now live in Mindanao in Southern Philippines directing a project called "Television Education for the Advancement of Muslim Mindanao". TEAM-Mindanao has taken me to the remotest and most conflict-ridden island villages of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi Tawi and to the hinterlands of Maguindanao to distribute ETV facilities to those who need them most.
Doris (right) with Knowledge Channel Installers in Tongkil, Sulu
July 19, 2006
I feel 18 years old again; backpacking my way for weeks on end to be among the poor—seemingly living the life of a missionary sometimes—and loving it. I have chosen to live where the discomfort level is pretty high and the danger levels more so. But then again, so are the happiness and fulfillment levels. It is pretty ironic that once again, I live that inner peace in a land struggling to achieve some semblance of it. But no, I haven't had the time to sit and write any more poems.